Cyanine dyes have been shown to undergo reversible photoswitching, where the fluorophore can be switched between a fluorescent state and a dark state upon illumination at different wavelengths. The photochemical mechanism by which switching occurs has yet to be elucidated. In this study, we have determined the mechanism of photoswitching by characterizing the kinetics of dark state formation and the spectral and structural properties of the dark state. The rate of switching to the dark state depends on the concentration of the primary thiol in the solution and the solution pH in a manner quantitatively consistent with the formation of an encounter complex between the cyanine dye and ionized thiol prior to their conjugation. Mass spectrometry suggests that the photoconversion product is a thiol−cyanine adduct in which covalent attachment of the thiol to the polymethine bridge disrupts the original conjugated π-electron system of the dye.